We recently highlighted the career of the first male African American FBI agent, James Wormley Jones. The FBI has also recently been celebrating its first female African American agent: Sylvia Elizabeth Mathis.
Agent Jones was appointed in February 1919. Astonishingly it took another fifty-seven years to appoint an African American woman to the same post. It was Mathis’ law school dean, a former FBI agent, who encouraged Mathis to apply to the Bureau and she joined in February 1976. At the time, there were only forty women in the Bureau out of approximately 8,500 agents. Those figures are a reminder of just how conservative intelligence and security services tend to be, usually lagging twenty to thirty years behind wider changes in society. There had been earlier attempts to appoint an African American woman, but both candidates failed selection.
Although she struggled with the physical aspects of the training, Mathis graduated as Agent #2658 and went on to work in New York where she specialised in the investigation of illegal gambling and extortion cases. Three years later she left the FBI to work as an attorney.
Sadly she was killed in a motoring accident in October 1983, aged just thirty four.